Scott Chapman and Felix Higginbottom – NYJO
Scott Chapman and Felix Higginbottom – NYJO
The National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) has a reputation for producing some of the music industry’s top players and singers. Scott Chapman currently holds the drum chair, Felix Higginbottom is on percussion and they have just recorded a new NYJO album, which is being launched at The Proms this year.
The guys met up to talk about the big band and the opportunities it can bring to young musicians.
How did you join NYJO?
Scott – My drum teacher told me to go to NYJO so I started off in NYJO 2, which is the younger band for less experienced players. I started off doing that for about two years and got called up to do the first band. At that point I was just sitting in on rehearsals, maybe playing the odd tune. Then I started doing percussion for that band and when the old drummer left I took over.
Felix – I was about 14 and I just wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing at school, our music department was not very strong and none of the people I was playing with particularly pushed me. I think I dropped Bill Ashton a text and he said, ‘We need a dep. There’s a gig in Cambridge. Can you do it?’. So I got my mum to drive me up from Oxford. It came to the gig and Bill handed me the charts about half an hour before and I sh*t myself because it looked so hard; most of it was on vibes. I got through it and nobody noticed that I messed up quite a lot!
I came in from time to time to dep gigs over the years but I never committed to it because of school and Saturday rehearsals; I had school on Saturdays.
Tell me a bit more about NYJO 2 and how it’s structured.
Scott - If you’re newer to big band playing then that’s better suited for you and it’s a really good place to get your sight reading up and to get playing in that environment. The idea is that people get fed through to the first band, which is how I did it, but of course there are people who are already at a good standard who come straight to NYJO 1.
Felix - It’s meant as a training band and there’s a new band as well that’s just formed called NYJO London, which is for anyone in London and it’s another training band. It’s not the same as NYJO 1, which is a professional band. If there’s a space that needs filling in rehearsals the MD will go upstairs and grab someone from NYJO 2 that deserves a shot.
How does it work? How long can you be in it?
Scott – the maximum age is 25 but there’s no set length you’re allowed to stay for, it’s just until that age. Chris Dagley was in it for nine years. Some people only do it for a year. It varies quite a lot. I guess when people are ready to move on then they do.
How does it work for people wanting a space if others are in the band for so long?
Scott – The way it used to work was people who regularly showed up to rehearsals and were are of a good enough standard would get to become one of the possible deps or maybe even get a chair [regular position] in the band. This year for the first time we''ve had auditions and there''s now an official list of chair holders and authorised deps for this year. Next year the same process will take place.
How does it work for you guys as there’s one drummer and one percussionist?
Felix - It’s slightly more intense.
For other people who want to be doing what you’re doing, is there a chance for them to play too? Are musicians cycled so it’s not just you two?
Felix - In rehearsals if there’s another percussionist they always get a shot. Today there were a few drummers that played on some of the charts. If we’ve played the charts before we don’t necessarily need to do them again and it gives other people the chance and the opportunity to be noticed.
Is it done piece by piece for musicians in a gig?
Felix - No. The gigging band is always set and at the start of the year you have the chair for the year and you reapply for the next year. So in the band there’s only one percussionist and one drummer, unless there was a piece that required loads of extra percussion.
Scott – It’s always useful for other people to turn up to rehearsals and get used to the band because if I can’t do a gig then there are some guys to dep it out to. It’s not the kind of gig you can dep out easily; you’ve got to be a pretty good sight reader, especially if you’re just coming in cold on the gig and haven’t done any rehearsals.
Felix – I find it a nightmare to get deps!
The gigging pad has got 200 or 300 charts in it and sometimes it feels like any of those charts could be called and you’ve got to be able to get through them and play them quite well.
Does everyone get on well or is it competitive?
Felix - It’s a bit of a myth that NYJO is competitive. Occasionally there is the odd character whose head is slightly over inflated but by and large everyone gets on extremely well, especially this year. It definitely feels like a band, which is great.
How many gigs do you do per year and where do they tend to be?
Scott – Because it’s the National Youth Jazz Orchestra we have to do gigs everywhere and I’ve done gigs all over the country. You get to see Britain. In terms of gigs per year, it varies but generally about three a month on average. We’ve had months where we’ve had nine or ten and you might have a month where there’s nothing at all.
Felix – We’ve just started a residency at The Vortex so every month we do a gig there and every month we do a gig at Ruislip Manor, which is another weekend jazz venue, so there are always two a month. Otherwise it’s touring theatres up and down the country.
How does it work if people miss rehearsals?
Felix - If you’ve got the chair in the band you’re expected to come to most of them. If you’re a musician and it’s a Saturday, the chances are that most of us will have a gig in the evening but if it’s far away and you have to travel it’s OK as long as you have someone to fill your shoes.
What do you feel NYJO has done for you as a player?
Scott – For me the sight reading was a big aspect. There aren’t a lot of bands where you’ll be this challenged. There’s a big mixture of things that get thrown at you in NYJO so for me that was the most useful thing as a professional musician; to be able to sit in on a gig and read it from the chart…people will book you just for that. General big band playing and different styles and charts; you develop a lot.
Felix – Scott’s right about the reading. The gigging pad has got 200 or 300 charts in it and sometimes it feels like any of those charts could be called and you’ve got to be able to get through them and play them quite well. Quite often the vibes part is a copy of the flute part, really fast sax lines or ledger lines all over the place. Or you get given a first trumpet part and you’ve got to transpose it up by a tone on sight.
Playing in an ensemble that’s that big…if you’re not doing something orchestral as a drummer or percussionist then chances are you’re in a band, which is only four or five of you. It’s playing with a whole section and trying to get everyone to lock in so that it’s musical, not just playing through the charts. It was the first time I had really played in tandem with a drummer. Normally you’re just doing your own thing or there’s a section of percussionists. I’ve learnt to groove with a drummer and establish a relationship so you know what each other is going to play and you won’t put each other off by playing contradictory patterns at the same time.
How big is the group?
Scott - Something like 22. It’s slightly larger than the average big band. Usually you’d have four trumpets and four trombones but we’ve got five of each. Plus French horn, flute and percussion is an extra, and there are singers too.
What are you working on outside of NYJO?
Felix – We’ve both just finished our second years of our degrees. Scott’s got another two years cos he’s at music college but I’ve only got one more year to get my sh*t together because I’m at a general university. At the moment a lot of what I do is either pop, which is mostly on hand percussion, shows or functions, although a couple of months ago I did have to dress up as a Russian percussionist for a new film of ‘Anna Karenina’!
Scott – I’m doing bits and pieces. Functions, jazz gigs. I’m in the process of putting a band together myself. I’m quite interested in writing and being at the Royal Academy is great cos you''re always surrounded by musicians (and your mates!) so it''s easy to sort out plays with the other guys and try out any compositions. Ideally I’d be playing jazz gigs and my own music all the time but unfortunately it’s playing for door money and you can’t make a living out of that. The functions are the ones which pay but aren’t always the most musically satisfying. I don’t do any teaching but I may need to do that.
Is there anything you particularly want to do?
Scott – For me it’s to play a variety of things. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a particular drummer and you’re more likely to get booked if you can play everything. Jazz is what I play most of the time but that’s not to say I wouldn’t be interested in doing other stuff. As long as I can make a living doing what I’m doing I’m happy. It’s the best job to have in the world.
Felix – While I’ve nothing tying me down I’d like to travel, see the world a bit and play with different musicians. When I was younger I idolised the thought of making it in a pop band but that doesn’t appeal to me now at all. The more musicians you meet the more you realise how amazingly creative and enlightening it is to be able to make music. With latin and ethnic percussion there’s hundreds and hundreds of instruments and then all the orchestral stuff as well. So with that wide range of styles you are bound to come across all sorts of characters and musical opinions.
Let’s talk about the album now
Felix - It’s a new album; the first we’ve recorded for about six years. There’s a big back catalogue of quite famous albums on which Nigel Hitchcock and Chris Dagley’s playing is legendary. The album is called ‘The Change’, entitled after one of the band’s own compositions by Chris Whiter, who’s the baritone player. It’s a mixture of contemporary big band, straight ahead swing and some latin.
Where was it recorded?
Scott – Angel studios in Islington. It’s not every day we get to work in such a high profile recording studio so it was a really good experience for all of us. It was a really fun day and we had the studio booked from ten ''til ten. We heard some of it back in the control room and we can’t wait to hear the whole album.
Felix – We did two new pieces by Tim Garland whose sax playing and composition are legendary. He guested on those, as did Mark Mondesir on drums. He was telling us about the last time he was in the studio at the age of 20 and he was recording his first Courtney Pine album, which put perspective on what we were doing.
Are they NYJO guys as well?
Scott – I’m not sure. I don’t think so but Tim had written two compositions for the band and one was presented to us a few months ago. The other one was written about two years ago and we played that at Ronnie’s and some other places. Tim was really interested in working with Mark, which was why he got him to play on those two tracks. They’re good ones for drums and Mark sounded amazing.
Felix – The most recent one was meant as a dedication to the late Chris Dagley. It could have been strange to have two different drummers playing on one album but fortunately they’ve got very different styles. Mark is quite heavy on the stuff he played (double pedal etc…).
Scott – It was interesting for me, having played that chart for about two years. I’ve played it a fair bit now and listening to Mark come in and play it in such a different way was really interesting. He’s got a nice loose way of playing things. Tim writes quite specifically for drums and I think I was playing it quite metronomically. That was another challenge for the band to deal with as well, having another drummer coming in.
You’re playing at the Proms this year!
Scott – Yes! The Prom is on the 10th August and we’re doing one of the late ones. The album we’ve just done is going to be launched then. We’ll be playing a lot of material from the album and Tim will be there as well, possibly Mark but that’s up in the air. I’ve never played in the Royal Albert Hall before. It''s also going to be broadcast live on radio and on TV a week later.
Felix – I have played in the Albert Hall before but only in an orchestra where there’s about eight times the amount of you. Playing in a big band where there’s 22 of us on a huge stage will make us very exposed. The Proms always sell out so there’s nowhere to hide.
Scott – For us, our roles in the band are quite exposed so everyone can always hear what we’re playing. It’s a hard role to fill but it’ll be a lot of fun.
Felix – There will be a lot of people of our age watching this because there are a lot of pre conceived ideas about the band. There’s always going to be people out there all too eager to criticise your playing, something you don’t get with older musicians. When you’re a young musician there’s a lot of competition, but you’ve got to ignore all that and just concentrate on the music; at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you’re not playing the one hundred percent correct cascara patterns, as long as the music feels great.
How long have you two been playing together in the band?
Felix – I guess consistently for about a year and a half. I’d met Scott before at NYJO gigs when I was very young but it’s only in the last 18 months that we’ve really got the section sounding great. There’s a drum and percussion feature in one of the tracks on the album, which we let loose on.
What do you need to do as a drummer to play well with a percussionist?
Scott – You want a percussionist to compliment you and it works both ways. I have played with percussionists who overplay and step on your toes. We’re all trying to play music, it’s not about yourself.
On the feature we did on the album, it’s a straight latin feel which we then take into 12/8 during the solo. When we first played it together it didn’t sound quite right. Often as drummers playing latin we’re trying to recreate all the percussion section so I was almost playing the same as Felix. I changed some sounds and rhythms and it worked.
Felix – Scott hit the nail on the head - you need to compliment and work with the drummer to create the groove. I remember being in the studio with Mark Mondesir playing a 9/8 groove in mainly subdivisions of 3 x 3, he was leaving a lot of space in his playing (not packing it with ghost notes). I didn’t want to crowd this groove with anything too ‘present’ so I used some soft Caxixi in subdivisions of 2''s accenting each second beat, this means the grooves line up every 2 bars. This felt great; it didn’t step on Mark’s toes but produced a subtle layer of cross-rhythms.
A lot of the time drummers and percussionists feel they have to fill every four or eight bars. You just don’t have to. You’re there to create a groove and when we both fill in the same bar in different subdivisions it becomes a mess. If it’s a salsa type latin tune I tend to go straight on to congas or shaker and Scott knows that if I play congas he won’t play similar sounds like toms because they get in the way of each other. Simple is better, especially when there’s two of you. Or here’s a thought; don’t play at all. Make them miss you, then when you do play your addition to the texture is going to be all the more significant!
NYJO has a great reputation for producing strong players
Felix – I’ve walked into a lot of situations where I’ve mentioned that I play with NYJO and people say, ‘Oh I played with the band when I was younger!’. There are a lot of people out there in the professional world who have come through NYJO, especially drummers. Ralph Salmins played with the band a bit when he was younger and of course Ian Thomas, Chris Dagley and James Maddren. Percussionists include James Mack, who now has the chair on Cirque du Soleil and did some of Kylie’s stuff. Another guy is Keith Fairbairn who is a big UK player. I was lucky enough to be taught by Keith. There was a guy that left last year, Dave Elliott. He is a monster player and one of the few guys that finished college and went straight into working; he did a Mamma Mia world tour and now the Lion King tour.
Scott – There aren’t loads of big bands drummers about and it’s not the same as playing small band at all. It’s really important to be able to nail both.
Felix – Big band has got itself a bit of a bad name; people might think it’s a bit dated but the style of music that we’re asked to play includes a lot of funk, latin and gospel as well as the swing. It’s a full stage show gig nowadays so it gives you the chops you need for different music.
I’ve heard that the first time she [Amy Winehouse] sang with the band it was quite a last minute thing. She learnt all the songs on the train and sang them perfectly on the gig.
Amy Winehouse used to sing with NYJO too?
Felix - Amy started her career in the band so it brings into reality that NYJO is more mainstream than people think.
Scott – I’ve heard that the first time she sang with the band it was quite a last minute thing. Bill rang her up and told her what songs they were doing. She learnt all the songs on the train and sang them perfectly on the gig.
Felix – Occasionally the odd chart is called in the band and you think, ‘I bet she sang this and I bet she nailed it’. It’s reaffirming that it happens for people who play with the band.
For more information on NYJO visit www.nyjo.org.uk
Interview by Gemma Hill
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